But for this blog, many of you would be unaware that I live with heart failure, or that my marriage ended. To the regular person on the street, the other school parents, the people in my community, I look ‘normal’.
How do I know I look ‘normal’? Because when people eventually heard/hear about my health issues or marriage status, the most common reaction was/is, a shocked facial expression, followed by the shriek, “But you look so NORMAL!!!”
But what does ‘normal’ really mean? Is it that I look like I have no problems, or only the same problems as everyone else? But no one is without problems, and no one has the same problems, or combinations of problems as everyone else because they come in so many forms like physical illness, grief, relationship challenges, loneliness, depression, anxiety, addiction, financial struggles, infertility, abuse, trauma, oppression, regret, guilt, and so on… so the chances that we have all been dealt the same hand, on any given day, is… well…, impossible.
But yet we refer to ‘normal’ a lot, this yardstick we have created by which to measure and perhaps judge everyone else. Truth is we are quick to judge, quick to make assumptions based on a visual moment. It’s probably routed in the filtering requirements of our stone age days, when we had to read situations and people with haste, to make sure they didn’t steal our food etc. But we have moved beyond the stone age days, alas to days where the incidence of people suffering from depression and anxiety are higher than ever, where suicide occurs, often it seems out of nowhere, where many people are dealing with problems so much bigger and darker to them than any good stuff in their life seems to be able to counter, where they are lost at sea and overwhelmed, despite the fact that they may look ‘normal’.
So let’s open one box that visually looks ‘normal’ and see what goes on beneath the label.
The ‘normal’ clothes I ware cover up a plethora of physical scars from my open-heart surgery nine years ago, legs (where they got veins for my double bypass), chest (where I was opened up for surgery and to facilitate the implantation of a defibrillator) and abdomen (where various drains had to run fluids in and out of my body). I might look ‘normal’ from the neck up or knees down, but let’s just say much of the rest, is tinged with what must therefore be referred to here, as the ‘abnormal’.
Likewise, the ‘normal’ woman/mother labels I carry, for doing the many things associated with both roles, have often covered up the headache I had from crying about the fact that my husband no longer wanted to be with me, or the stress and panic I often felt and still do sometimes, from the vast sea of responsibility I often feel as a single parent in the home, raising three kids, while also living with heart failure and carrying the responsibility for sorting everything from the plumbing and ‘do it yourself’ jobs, to generally keeping the place ticking over.
Now before you all take out the violins for me, know that the challenges in my life are not the whole story of my life, not even in the moment they were being birthed, because throughout they were also accompanied by vast amounts of really good stuff in my life, like family love and support, a strong faith, nature, friends near and far, and an amazing community local to me, as well as a ton of fellow heart patients and advocates, all of which individually and together have been rocks for me. The fact that these things have accompanied all the negative stuff is what has kept me going, sane, moving forward and no doubt helped me look ‘normal’, but there were times that balance was a battle, where the scars and wounds and challenges felt bigger than my mental capacity to cope with all, despite the fact that I might have looked ‘normal’ amidst the battle.
So then, what does ‘looking normal’ really tell us? Clearly it doesn’t tell us what might be going on in someone’s life, or how they might be feeling. It doesn’t tell us what is on their mind, or where they are at with their woes on any given day. In fact, it tells us nothing other than whether they look like they had time to brush their hair or not, full stop, the rest we fill in for ourselves, based on our own interpretations, rather than any reality, and sometimes, interpretation and reality bare no similarity.
So what to do? Currently most of us assume everyone is ‘grand’ or ‘fine’, unless someone tells us otherwise. But in the lowest low, sometimes it’s hard for the broken one to just start talking about their brokenness. They may even talk about how great everything is, to counter the pressing oppressive problems, because admitting their existence might surely make them feel like a failure in the eyes of the one they are talking to, and that, on top of everything else, might be just too much to bear.
But what if we, the audience turned ‘normal’ on its head.? What if we assume everyone is carrying a fine big load of problems and what if we say to that person, “Yes, your hair is fabulously brushed, but how’s your load today?”
And then, just in case they still find it hard to relate to someone they think is looking way too ‘normal’ to understand, what if we make ourselves more real to them too, what if we admit to our load in that moment, the truth beneath our own ‘normal’ looking façade, because by making ourselves more real, perhaps we are giving that struggling person an opportunity to feel they are connected with someone who might understand, get it, be there for them in an honest, meaningful way, without them feeling like a failure, even for five minutes, which could make all the difference to their day and even their life.
That’s why I admit to all I do in my blog, to say hey guys you know what, life ain’t all a picnic, there are some whopper challenges, I have big scars, physically and emotionally, and many moments where the negative was/is really crushing the good stuff on the scales of life, times where I felt/feel totally overwhelmed, even though I looked/look ‘normal’. But here’s the deal, I am getting through these challenges with the following recipe, 1. admitting they are there, to myself and others, 2. by hoovering up as much love and family and friendship and nature and faith and everything else that brings joy too, and if at times, all that isn’t enough 3. getting someone to help me figure out how to get the balance right again.
And hopefully, now that you know that beneath my ‘normal’ look so much else exists, perhaps you might identify with me as ‘normal’ in a different way, in a real way, that helps you feel a bit better too about any tough stuff going on in your own life… to find a bit of healing even in the fact of knowing that you are not alone.
So hang in there everyone. Whatever load or loads you are carrying under that brushed or unbrushed hair, please know everyone else is carrying a load too (even the ones who pretend they are not), and that we are all trying to figure out the recipe to keep us tilted in the good feelings despite the loads, but know that sometimes that means we have to reach out to someone to help us find one of the ingredients we need. This my friends, I believe, is the REAL ‘normal’.
© Pauline O’Shea
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